Adams' El Niño
06/26/2003 - and 27 June 2003
John Adams: El Niño
Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Kirsti Harms (soprano), Willard W White (bass-baritone), Daniel Bubeck (countertenor), Brian Cummings (countertenor), Steven Rickards (countertenor)
John Adams (conductor), Peter Sellars (director)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Voices, Adopt the Barbican Youth Choir
The long-planned UK premiere of John Adams' El Niño was the second part of the Barbican's "American opera season". It's not formally an opera, and not even dramatic, but an oratorio modelled closely on Handel's Messiah. It was, though, well worth waiting for and incomparably more rewarding than the genuine opera presented on the day before, Previn's A streetcar named Desire.
Handel librettist Charles Jennens used a selection of scriptural texts to reflect on the redemption of humanity as understood in Christian doctrine, from prophecy through the birth and death of Christ to his resurrection and the last judgement; Adams has collected texts from many sources that reflect on the experience and spirituality of conception, birth and childhood, understood both in terms of the story of Jesus' birth and of the cataclysmic cosmic event it represents. El Niño of the title is both the Christ child and the global hot wind that intermittently causes storms and floods. The framework of the narrative is based on a combination of mediaeval English lyric texts, the gospels in the King James version and the apocryphal gospels. The reflections on the experiences of conception, pregnancy, childbirth and mourning for murdered innocents are taken from a range of Spanish poetry. The themes of physical, cosmic spiritual and personal upheaval are always closely bonded, supported by the symbolic realism of the gospels and the baroque elements in the mediaeval texts and the Spanish poetry of all periods.
The overall effect is one of many frames of reference that can all be understood at once. The idea of narrative, spiritual and personal levels working in parallel is familiar from the Bach passions, but Adams and Sellars aim for more integration of the levels. For example, the enormity of Joseph's (or any man's) discovery that he is to be a father is embodied in the might of the scriptural Lord of the storm, in the bass-baritone's aria "Thus saith the Lord", the only text that Adams shares with Handel; the mothers mourning for innocents murdered by Herod share a voice with a modern Mexican poet mourning both the murder of her ancestors by the Conquistadors and the brutal suppression of a youth revolt by police in 1968. Sellars claims that the effect is similar to that of mediaeval art, where everyday life in all its pleasure and complexity -- towns and pranks as well as flowers and clouds -- goes on around the Madonna and child, or the crucifixion. The Byzantine meditation in the mosaics of the Church of the Chora in Istanbul on the relationship between divine and human, flesh and spirit, in the incarnation of Christ offers a more formally structured but even more precise parallel. But Sellars also aims to include an explicitly modern frame of reference: he directs the singers in his now familiar expressive near ballet, complemented by two dancers, all in generic costumes, while a movie depicts a parallel version of the narrative set in modern Los Angeles. Some parts were very moving, for example when the baby in the movie smiles as the magus sings "Love is everything". But the sentimental cops as the shepherds were so characteristic of Sellars that many of the audience must have groaned inwardly.
Adams' music is, as always, based on foursquare rhythms, which provide a foundation of energetic forward movement and passion for wonderfully diverse orchestral and vocal textures. The singers have music that lets them work fully with the words, even the trio of counter tenors who represent Gabriel and the magi as well as narrating as an ensemble. The singers made Sellars' near-choreography wonderfully expressive, bringing it well above cliche in a live performance where the images in the movie could not gain by growth in rehearsal and performance. Adams and the orchestra likewise went far beyond the stereotyped chugging that his detractors hear, uncovering forces of nature and spirit in the music.
The singers were mostly those who sang in the first performance at the Châtelet. Dawn Upshaw sang the Mary-as-Madonna music with clear, tough sweetness. Kirsti Harms was forceful in the passionate, modern Mary music originally composed for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Harms lacks Lieberson's fire and total physical commitment (and surreally, both she and Upshaw look a bit like Hillary Rodham Clinton), but her performance was powerful, even heartbreaking, on its own terms. Willard W. White was identifiably right as each of Joseph, God and Herod in turn, and the three counter tenors gave an impeccably integrated and dramatic performance. London Voices, like the orchestra, made complexity sound coherent. The Adopt the Barbican Youth Choir, who filled the stage at the end to sing of joy under a palm tree, were more hesitant but still very touching.